Of What Use?


In his novel The Cider House Rules, John Irving has the young protagonist Homer Wells looking to “be of use” as a medical assistant to Dr. Wilbur Larch, the doctor and administrator of an orphanage in New England. The novel tells Homer’s story and depicts a life lived not only for self but one that is “of use” in the world, relevant to the well-being of others. This Sunday we revisit the transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus, Peter, James and John go up on a mountaintop and Jesus is changed right before the disciple’s eyes. His robes and his face shine with the brightness of the sun. Fantastic, right? Sure, but we might ask, Of what use? If we stick with the story, we see.
This is a story about spiritual experience. You might think we are talking of Jesus’ experience, but no. The disciples are the ones who who perceive the light of God before them, who see the connections between Jesus, themselves and Elijah and Moses. Peter, James and John are enthralled by the light of God. So, as we see Peter and the others they are in the midst of spiritual experience. And Peter, always bold, responds. He wants to hold on to the experience, stay on the mountaintop with Jesus, Elijah and Moses. So, he suggests constructing dwelling places, one for each of these holy personages.  As soon as he makes this suggestion, the experience ends: Elijah and Moses disappear and Jesus looks like he always did, clothes a bit soiled and worn.  They do hear a voice from heaven announcing that Jesus is God’s son, pleasing in God’s sight. But, Jesus immediately directs them to the nitty-gritty, life down the mountain, in the cities, towns and on the road.  What are we to make of this?

First, spiritual experience is real.  The whole universe is filled with God’s glory!  Everything shines with this light. And we, at times, catch a glimpse, perceive the inter-connectedness, the interdependence of living, the wonder of it all.  This is great, and tempting. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were always like this?  If we could just rest in this light?  If we could just build some little huts, and stay there? Yes, but as humans I think that we specialize in the nitty-gritty, we are of use to one another, helping one another along, touching, healing, loving others.  We mix it up in the cities, are present to one another on the road and in town.  We are meant to “be of use.”  And this is the second point, with Christ we enter the world offering the love and compassion that is ours on the mountaintop AND as we make the descent. When I think of it, it is not Jesus who is so much transfigured, it is ourselves. Through sacred encounter we are changed and we become as Christ to the world: compassion and light that others might find their way.